Why I sometimes wish for death : on understanding suicide

[Trigger warning: this post contains non-graphic discussion of suicidal ideation and attempted suicide, as well as non-graphic discussion of sexual assault and rape culture]

Whenever a famous person completes suicide, there is always public and media speculation as to why such a rich or successful person would want to harm themselves. Explanations are often overly simplistic: it was their illness; it was medications; it was substance abuse. I know the surviving friends and family members of people who complete suicide also wonder why or how this could have happened.

Personally, I have to answer what led to my suicide attempt every time I go see a new mental health provider. As part of my healing, I’ve also independently reflected on what led me to the brink of death. Over time, my explanations have evolved.

It’s as though every time I’m forced to revisit this experience, I unwrap another layer in what led me to that terrible place. There is no one, simple explanation. It’s multi-layered and complex, and requires multiple frameworks to even begin to comprehend.

It is my hope that sharing these perspectives can help deepen our societal understanding of suicide and chronic suicidal thoughts, so we might better address them.

***

When I was a freshman in college, I nearly died. I remember thinking that life was filled with so much suffering, and just not worth living anymore. I have experienced chronic suicidal ideation for decades. Yet freshman year was the only time I tried to take my own life. Sometimes I wonder, why was it different? What wasso bad that I thought death was the most obvious solution?

The most simple explanation is that the days were getting shorter; the darkness was causing Seasonal Affective Disorder. Combined with the stress of midterm exams, my brain spiraled into a depressive episode. Depression is a lying liar who lies, and I couldn’t see any way that I would really feel happy again.

My parents were extremely supportive and wanted to help; they took me to a specialist in adolescent mood disorders for further help. His explanation was one that I’ve carried for a long time: I’m bipolar. The medication I was on for depression triggered underlying mania.

Although I’ve never experienced a full manic episode, the doctor believed I experience “mixed states” and hypomania. What the specialist described as mixed states are often when I’m most at risk for hurting myself. I have both the deep despair of depression, and the energy to get out of bed and do something with those feelings.

After a year or more of trying to find a medication that would help, I went back to college. Rather, I transferred to a different university; my school refused to let me back unless I swore before the Honor Committee that I was “cured.” Apparently, by attempting to take my life, I had violated the school’s honor code. This response from schools is actually disturbingly common.

It is also part of why I didn’t ask for help when I was in crisis: I was afraid of being expelled. Systemic ableism in academia certainly played a role in my suicide attempt.

Sexual assault was also a factor. The school’s orientation included a section on sexual assault. At the time, I thought it was progressive to give women rape whistles and encourage us not to walk alone at night. I now realize that though this education was well intentioned, it situated the responsibility for preventing assault on the victims rather than the perpetrators. As I tried to be polite with my friends’ abusers, and wrestled with my own unnamed assaults, this kind of message burned in my consciousness. Perhaps it had been my fault. Why did I go with him? Why didn’t I carry a whistle? Why didn’t I say no louder, better? Why didn’t I make him hear me?

I can now name this victim-blaming as part of a larger pattern of rape culture. The stress of coping with it was certainly not good for my own mental health, and it also contributed to my own feelings that life was not worth living. Certainly, PTSD and trauma played a role in my suicide attempt. I was hypervigilant about walking alone at night; I worried about predators living in my dorm; I didn’t have confidence that the institution would take care of me if I spoke out about these problems.

I also knew there were abusers around me. Before I left for my first college, two of my friends had pulled me aside to warn me. Independently, they each wanted to warn me that a person who had assaulted them was going to my state university. More than that, they wanted to warn me that they’d recently found out their abusers were going to be living in my dorm. Neither friend knew each other; their assaults were somewhat different yet depressingly similar in the way that all rape is similar; neither of them wanted to have their experiences publicly known.

It was not my first experience with the whisper network, yet it was a difficult one. One of my friends’ abusers had used alcohol, so that she was too incapacitated to fight back or protest. In our new dorm, he frequently held drinking parties and served the same brand of alcohol he’d weaponized against my friend.

I felt like I couldn’t betray my friend’s trust, but also didn’t want one of my new college friends to have the same experience. I worried that even if I tried to keep my friend out of it, the whispers might somehow be traced back to me. I was worried about the same kind of negative attention my friends were. I was also worried that someone with a seeming pattern of abuse would not hesitate to use that violence against me. So instead, I went with my friends to the parties in his room. I drank and ate nothing, but tried to make sure there was a group of people there, and that they got back to their rooms safely.

I cannot begin to express the stress of knowingly being in the same room with someone who had hurt my friend so deeply, and trying to prevent it from happening again. The secret burned in me, as did his seeming flagrant disregard for the damage he had caused. I am grateful to my friends for sharing what they did with me, and I wish that they could have spoken publicly about what happened. I wish that survivors were believed, instead of vilified or blamed for their assaults. Rape culture made me long for death.

I also didn’t realize that all of this was forcing me to deal with my own sexual assault. I was convinced that I was simply concerned for my friends, yet I was experiencing symptoms of PTSD. It would take several years for me to realize it wasn’t just “bad sex”; I had actively been trying to refuse sexual acts. My lack of consent had been ignored.

There is no flashing sign that lights up when you’re abused which says, “This is abusive; you said no and this person ignored it. You did not consent to this. No one deserves this.” Rather, an essential part of how abuse works is to trick you into thinking that what happened is something you chose, or somehow your own fault. “Why did I date him if I didn’t want that to happen?” is one way this abuse and oppression is internalized.

On campus, I was jumpy and on edge. I was hyper vigilant; it was hard to sleep; I would lose track of my body in what I now know is dissociation. My feelings were many, and overwhelming. It wasn’t until I was able to namemy experiences as PTSD that I could access treatment. Meanwhile, the physical and psychological effects of my assault continued to wreak havoc on my health. I believe the stress of the rape culture on campus, the abusers in my building, and my own untreated PTSD contributed to my suicide attempt.

More recently, I’ve begun to add another clue to understanding my attempt: I’m Autisticin a world designed for allistics. There have been recent studies about how most Autistic people die before age 40; we are also at a higher riskfor completing suicide. The stress of systemic ableism and Autistic burnout play a role in this, as well as common Autistic experiences such as traumafrom bullying and “treatments.”

As I’ve learned more about this flavor of neurodivergence, I’ve begun to cope better overall by accommodating my sensory access needs, giving myself down time in between social engagements, a consistent routine, and stimming. When I went to university – both times – I had none of this information. I didn’t know that the typical challenges freshman face could be life-threatening with unmanaged Autism.

Without realizing it, I had been trying to cope with these multi-factorial stresses of my first university by regulating my sensory inputs. I was stimming more than I had in years. Yet I had spent a lifetime trying to suppress visible neurodivergencedue to bullying and other social stigma. I didn’t recognize these behaviors as the coping tools they were.

I worried that these coping skills were symptoms of an underlying pathology. I worried that they were unhealthy, when stimming is anything but. I tried to force myself to stop, to be more normal. In doing so, I may have inadvertantly contributed to Autistic burnout.

Currently, Autistic burnout is something mostly discussed within the Autistic and neurodivergent communities. It is not listed as a symptom of Autism in the DSM or most psychiatric organizations. Yet it is very real, and it can be deadly. It almost was for me.

***

I think it’s essential that we name that the individual problems I and others encounter are often symptomatic of systemic struggles. My suicide attempt was impacted by medications and their side effects, but equally devastating were systemic problems: delays in diagnosis; rape culture; lack of understanding and awareness about Autism; ableism in academia.

To quote Audre Lorde, “If I cannot air this pain and alter it, I will surely die of it. That’s the beginning of social protest.” Whatever individual factors may be at play in each person’s own wrestling with the void, we all live in this white supremacist, ableist, rape culture. That will surely play into any suicidal impulses that may occur because of brain chemistry. To fully address suicidality, we need morethan just medications and access to therapy. We need to help dismantle the oppressive systems that drive so many to wish for death.

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